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Returning Tides

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Daniel Coolages hands seemed to blur as they rubbed frantically up and down, up and down, up and down along the wiry neck of his latest machine. He’d only just stopped making it but he wasn’t sure whether it was truly finished yet. He hoped it was, his arms hurt but he knew he couldn’t stop until he was told to do so. If he stopped before he was told to then anything could happen; the world could end. He didn’t quite know yet what the machine was going to do either. The voices sending him instructions hadn’t got that far yet. He knew what he wished it would do though.

What They had told him was that he would need wires for this one and they’d been so insistent about this particular fact that he’d known he wouldn’t be able to say no and the ensuing dilemma had crippled him for a good few hours. The only wires he had were imbedded in his ground floor flats walls and ceilings. He’d had to dig extremely hard into the plaster to pry them out and the plaster had made so much dust in the air he kept having to cough but the voices were not to be ignored.

In the beginning, when Daniel had been at school and had friends and went round to peoples houses for tea, Daniel had often tried ignoring the voices when they gave him orders. He hardly tried now, they were whispering to him even when he tried to sleep these days so in the end he’d done what they told him to do. It saved a lot of time.

He’d long learned that that was the only thing he could do even if people got angry at him because of what he’d done. When he had hurt that little girl years ago and did the very bad things to her they’d said he was evil for it. It wasn’t him he’d told them all and they hadn’t listened. No one ever listened to Daniel even if they said that they did. Not his mother or his social worker or that fucking bitch psychologist. They had all thought he was evil for the things he’d done and it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t fair.

And now they had all been banished and the voices were so loud some days he couldn’t even hear himself breathe. The voices filled his world and blunted the outside spaces Daniel didn’t occupy. They made his head ache and ache and ache. He wished they would speak more softly like they used to when he was in the hospital.

Daniel had recently thought to try and find a volume button in his hair somewhere in a burst of inspiration. Radios had volume dials and buttons, he’d reasoned, so maybe the voices in his head did to. He’d shaved his hair off to do it as well which he knew would make his mother worry if she found out. He’d fumbled as he did it and tried to make the hair as neat as he could with the voices shouting at him to stop and then he’d used the sharpest knife he had to probe along the ridges of his skull. He’d spent at least half an hour at the task and still hadn’t found a way to make the voices quieter. All that had happened was that Daniel had a worse headache than before, the voices got even more demanding and all this sticky brown stuff had made his shirt the wrong colour.

Brown.

That wasn’t right. Blood was red so it couldn’t be blood could it? The voices told Daniel it was a trick and he believed them. People were always playing tricks on Daniel.

Dyes that must be it. The CIA must have put a dye in his skin the same night they broke in and installed the chip inside his brain to torment him with the voices.

Daniel had had the chip for years now. That’s how the voices got in. He’d tried telling the doctors that when they forced him into the hospital, he’d screamed at them to say that he needed a proper scan at the real hospital but after the third one they wouldn’t let him go anymore; just fobbed him off about it being part of his “delusions”.

They were probably all working for the CIA in the first place; trying to stop Daniel from completing his destiny. They had even tried to get into Daniels head, tried to make Daniel believe they were right in saying that he was sick. They’d doctored the scans that they took as well and shown them to Daniel over and over again as though they thought they could make him believe their lies. That bitch had shown them to Daniel so often that he’d hated her the most.

But he’d got his own back on her at least.

The blank picture of a skull X-ray that they’d shown him definitely wasn’t Daniels head. Daniels head had a chip in it and the pictures they showed him didn’t. It must, he’d concluded, therefore be someone else’s head. Some other poor prisoner they’d doped with drugs and forced to sit in rooms with mad people.

Daniels hands really hurt, the plaster wall had broken when he punched it enough times but the force had ripped his fingers open too. He could see his bones now. They were brown and yellow and sticky. Luckily the voices were blocking his nerve endings today. He couldn’t feel the pain he surely must feel if he was normal. He had to keep making things, he had to carry on working. Daniels long nails gushed blood messily into the wet newspaper that hugged the confusing hodge podge of metal rigging and wires in front of him.

Newspaper.

The sight derailed his thoughts like fish seeing a shiny lure in open water, it sent them tumbling off into another unwanted direction. It was the caption of the newspaper. The little story underneath the big one everyone was supposed to read.

“Well respected psychologist found dead in her home.”

And then a picture of the woman.

Daniel knew the story very well. He had copies and copies of this story. They’d been turning up for weeks and Daniel didn’t know who was doing it. He would use his machine to make that stop first.

That stupid woman’s face made the voices scream. The picture made them so noisy and he couldn’t stop finding it everywhere. He’d even slipped on a pile of the pictures in his hall the other day and he hadn’t put them there. He was sure of it. They just appeared like someone was playing with him.

That’s why he needed his machine.

He needed people to stop. Daniels eyes tracked the woman’s empty face again and his stomach hurt. Pah! Fucking newspapers!

Daniel didn’t trust the papers. None of them were honest or fair. They told lies, Lies! LIES! The bitch had died in her car; Daniel had seen her head leaning against the glass. Her dead face all asleep but not. The newspapers never reported things properly; it infuriated the voices.

He’d made doubly sure everyone would know the true facts soon enough though. Everyone would know his truth and then they’d fucking be sorry! The voices had told him so. The voices were going to show Daniel the path to glory, were going to show him how to make machines big enough to make people listen to him and then all of those doctors and social workers and mothers and nurses and any other fucking cunt who crossed Daniel would be sorry for troubling him, doubting him. When he was crowned king of England by the CIA all of the people in the world would read his words and love him.

Daniel even had a personal manifesto just for this soon to be realised event because the voices had told him to write one... at least he thought he did. Daniel blinked through crusty, tired eyes at the bomb-site that was his home, if only he could remember where he’d put it... Daniel looked at his hand confusedly, already forgetting what he was supposed to be doing.

The voices weren’t telling him what the machine was for.

No matter though. They’d tell him eventually.

In his manifesto Daniel had very clearly noted which papers could be trusted and which couldn’t. The voices had told him which ones they were so he knew he was right. He’d already drafted his acceptance speech when they gave him the resignation letters of all the people’s careers he would end. Not just the paper people either; his fucking bitch social worker was getting it too.

She kept trying to come round for cups of tea. She said she only wanted to talk about things but Daniel knew she was spying on him really to see if he’d been taking all those evil pills the hospital forced him to take. The ones that made the voices quiet and him tired beyond belief.

Daniel had flushed those pills down the toilet on his first night in his flat. Then he’d gone out to celebrate his release. That had been months ago and he’d celebrated very hard indeed. That was why the O’Donnell crew kept coming round here demanding payment. Daniel didn’t have any money to give them, only what the good man gave him. The good man who’d got Daniel out and given Daniel this flat said he should use his money to buy food. The voices hated being interrupted by buying food but they liked the drugs the O’donnells sold. It was confusing.

Daniel wouldn’t answer his door to them anymore. Fuck them all! Didn’t they all know that Daniel was going to be a king? Daniel would own the world someday when he’d made his machine. He would make them all listen.

Genius.

Daniel was a genius. Special. The voices told him so when they were being nice. The man who had given him this flat, set him free, had told him so too. He had to remember that and just to make sure that he did he had written it in big bold letters many times on his walls and floor and sofa whenever inspiration struck and these days inspiration struck so hard and so often it was almost hard to keep up with the brilliance of his own mind. The voices were busy, had forced Daniel to be busy too. He hadn’t rested in days and he felt amazing for it.

Who needed sleep the voices asked?

‘Not Daniel’ Daniel had replied helplessly.

The whirling sphere that balanced between his ears and projected truth and honour in every exhale was a heavy crown.

Daniel had written that line in his manifesto several times too. He’d even underlined it just in case the retarded average joe on the street didn’t understand how wise he was. It was needed. People were so stupid. So wrapped in stupid uptight rules. They were always trying to deny Daniels brilliance.

Daniel was clever. Daniel was special. Daniel was clever, Clever, CLEVER!

Daniel was... Cold?

A soft breeze was tickling his ears as though someone had opened a window.

But Daniel didn’t open the windows ever.

Daniel blinked, staring at his machine, suddenly afraid that he might have made it work without realising. The voices said nothing in answer and Daniels eyes drooped in undeniable exhaustion as he shivered, the brown stuff seething along the frayed collar of his shirt while his bones peeked through the burst and ruined frames of his skin.

His hands moved up and down, up and down, up and down. His fingers dribbled brown stuff that couldn’t be blood because blood was red.

And then...

It happened very quickly, so quickly that Daniel Coolages exhausted mind almost didn’t register it. There was a blinding flash of light that blurred the room and then Daniel flinched as something hard hit him in the neck and bounced away along the scarred floor beside him. Daniel didn’t feel the pain but he did hear the clunk as something plastic wobbled on the hard surfaces that littered the floor.

He clutched his machine more tightly to his chest. Had the CIA found out what he was making? Had he made it properly this time so they finally had to step in?

Licking his sore lips, Daniel waited for an instruction from the voices as to what he should do but nothing came. For a few minutes Daniel was paralysed by indecision as he blinked into the unknown without even a voice to guide him.

There came another sucking sound and then another flash from the hall this time. Was he being raided?

Frightened, dazed and lost Daniel suddenly realised he wasn’t cold anymore. There was a light in front of him.

Clumsily, Daniel crawled towards the new source of light, his hands leaving sticky brown stains on the floor, his eyes burning. Too quickly, he came across the source of the disturbance; a big plastic coke bottle that had rolled over until it stopped at the foot of his sofa.

This idea confused him? He didn’t understand how it had got into his flat.

Something glimmered inside the bottle, a flashing neon sign to stay away but Daniel wasn’t a person who’d learned to listen to those sort of signs. He had his voices to keep him safe. The bottle was lit by a wick poking out from the neck so that strange white fire belched out, guttering upwards. As Daniel watched the fire reached out with hot fingers to graze the sunken cushions of his sofa. The heat of it forced thick, wavy grey air into the room as the sofa smouldered.

Daniel stared. Enraptured.

Pretty. It was so... Pretty.

Without any fear Daniel reached out to touch the bottle. Were the voices giving him a gift? Sometimes they showed him things like this when they wanted him to be happy, sometimes he saw people walking through the place that weren’t really there. Sometimes that woman turned up and scared him.

His fingers touched the plastic and he heard but didn’t feel the sizzle as the melting cover gave way to his pushing. Something liquid but thicker flooded out of the new hole he’d made and covered Daniels arm and chest. It tickled as it soaked into his naked skin and the flames followed merrily.

Daniel stared down at his arm which was a burning orange and smiled a perfect smile. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t real.

Slowly he sat down properly, his back warm against the burning sofa and watched the flames turn his skin black with interest.

Then he closed his eyes.

He really was tired after all and finally the voices had gone away. He could sleep now. Daniel drifted into the darkness, to a place where there would be no more voices to torment him anymore.

And outside the flat someone stood alone, watching as their fire caught and lifted the whole block of flats into a wall of heat. The watcher stayed for a long time, drinking in the colours of their creation with a satisfied grin on their face.

They made sure to leave before the warning sirens of the fire engines arrived though. They’d been caught once before and wouldn’t be caught again. They had a few more people to attend to first.

Mandy Hester sat fidgeting on her low slung love seat, alone, ensconced in her messy front room. She was a small woman, never having got the knack of growing when she was supposed to. What she lacked in height now though she definitely made up for in sheer presence. Some people said that there was such a thing as too many colours in one outfit Mandy knew but she didn’t get to talk to those kinds of people often and in any case didn’t think their opinions mattered all that much.

Besides, Bertie liked colourful things. Around her neck she wore a back breaking amount of silver necklaces; pendants and amulets and picture filled lockets. Every finger wore at least one ring; bright costume jewellery acrylic and gaudy paste stones.

She’d been wearing them for so long now that her fingers had permanently swelled and dipped where the fat bands of metal usually sat. When she took them off to wash them after work the tan lines made her look like she suffered from some sort of localised vertiligo. Bertie said she looked like she had zebra fingers and loved them.

At least somebody did. Times like this that thought mattered because the man she now waited for, as the old grandfather clock in the corner tick tocked the time away, certainly didn’t love Mandy.

Mandys eyes traced the contours of the familiar wooden time piece. The hulking thing was a bloody bastard to keep going at the best of times and Mandy wasn’t immune to giving it the odd kicking to scrape off the mud from her boots as she bustled through the house on her more hectic days.

It was a rubbish time keeper as clocks went too; a gift from her grandad before he died. Her grandad, ironically had always been a man known for being late, something that had infuriated her grandmother chronically and which now made a bit more sense since she’d received his final gift. She shouldn’t have accepted it really, her mother would have killed him if she’d found out he’d been in touch with her. Mandy wasn’t one to cause trouble in the family but it was just that she remembered it from her childhood and it was a nice memory unmangled from the not nice ones. Mostly she kept the thing wound for the comforting sound it made. Bertie liked it too, it kept his days regular he said and anything that helped Mandy’s boy stay happy was more than welcome to stay in Mandy’s book.

A gust of wind shook through the cottages crooked chimney and the small fire in the grate guttered in its stained prison of iron. For a second the wrinkles in Mandy’s hands stood out in high relief as she shuddered.

The cuckoo clock hooted loudly; all springy mechanics and uncaring bong.

Mandy shivered again even with the fires warmth drying the air around her. The tea in her hands spilled over her shaking fingers and began to stain the busy red weave of her carpet. Mandy hardly noticed, she was too distracted watching the empty doorway to the hall as though she was waiting for something to happen.

10 O Clock she told herself. It was starting to be too late... That meant it wouldn't be much longer now surely? Never before had he been later than midnight. It might... It might mean he wouldn’t come here tonight.

Hope.

It was a good feeling, a good strand of thought to cling on to. The later he arrived the less time he'd have here and the quicker it would all be over with. She'd be fair and square for another month. Her debts paid.

Mandy took a slow drawn out in-breath, the warm air cooling in her mouth and stinging the sensitive backs of her teeth as she did it. Not that it really mattered what time he turned up or how long he stayed for really. The feelings when he was gone were always the same. Always had been, even at the very beginning. Some things never quite faded, the dirt just got worn in deeper. In many ways Mandy had long ago made her peace with the 'arrangement'. Sometimes, though she hated him and herself for it, she’d even managed to find some kind of sick enjoyment in a flash of insanity. Then the hatred would flood in straight afterwards, the self disgust and the shame. Her shame.

One night every month. Payment for the life she lived the rest of the time. It was like bargaining with the devil, she knew that, it didn’t much matter now anyway as she’d committed her soul long ago without hesitation. Although... somehow, Mandy had begun to feel like she was running out of soul these days. In any case, after so long, she did at least know what to do with herself afterwards.

The stiff scrubbing brush and the strong carbolic soap bought just for these moments were even now sat upstairs in her bathroom, hidden under her towel. She'd become very good at washing away his smell. She could do it in twenty minutes if she scrubbed hard enough although the essence of him lingered long afterwards no matter what she did.

God, when she thought about what she’d become she felt hollow inside. The 21 year old woman who danced at parties and grew her hair long wouldn’t recognise her now... But where was he? Mandy licked her dry lips silently. She hated this. She just wanted it over with.

It was always the waiting that tormented her the most. Mandy suspected that he knew that on some level, knew it was the part that scared her most of all and so he took pains to drag it out. To make sure she understood who was in charge.

Probably made him feel powerful.

Mandy scowled at the empty vacuum of the doorway, her hand still gripping her spilled tea cup tremulously. Games. That was all it was; stupid, pointless, games. Mandy had always hated games; she didn’t even let Bertie play boggle anymore. The sounds set her nerves on fire. After all these games weren't necessary; it wasn't like he really needed to hammer home how much power he had over her. That was obvious enough to Mandy sitting like a stranger in her own home.

Mandy tried to distract herself by drinking the remnants of her tea but it was cold. The sugar turning into a lumpy scum at the bottom of the cup where she'd been too absorbed in what was about to happen to pay much attention to something as dreary as tea making. She'd broken the first cup she'd tried to use, it had slipped from her fingers when she heard a car door slam shut outside; convinced he'd arrived. There was an answering cut on her finger where she had opened the hard pad on a particularly sharp shard now that bloomed a small drop of crimson off and on even an hour and half later. She hadn't bothered with a plaster.

The clock hummed to mark the quarter.

Quarter past ten now? Once again hope ballooned in Mandys stomach, maybe he really wouldn't come after all? Maybe he'd finally done what he'd been threatening to do ever since they met and gotten bored of her. Maybe she was being handed a monthly reprieve? Guilt swam its way up her spine as Mandy half imagined some other poor, faceless woman who'd been picked in her stead but she couldn't quite formulate any true pity. She'd been doing this for too long not to wish someone else would take her place just for once.

None the less it was odd. He'd only ever been late a few times over the years.

Mandy sat very erectly in her overstuffed arm chair trying to see why this should be. She hadn't done anything in particular to warrant his absence. They'd hardly even spoken this month now she came to think about it. She avoided him when she could but he usually found a way to see her, to taunt just a bit more.

Despite herself Mandy realised that pulsating sickeningly inside the pink novocaine fog of relief was the faintest blue streaks of disappointment. Mandy fidgeted in her seat, revolted with her own mind and drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair agitatedly. Disappointed that he hadn't shown up?

Pathetic.

She may as well be wearing a collar and answering Pavlov's bells. Although perhaps disappointment wasn't quite the right way to put it. Even the hardest criminal could become worn by repetition couldn't they? It wasn't that she wished he was here but that some internal routine had been changed without her knowledge. It unnerved her. More frightening was the ominous consideration of what this free night might cost her in the long run. What would she be demanded to pay in return for the gift of an untainted evening?
 
Mandy shivered. As if drawn there by something stronger than herself Mandys eyes tumbled from the door to her mantle piece where Lauras picture took pride of place amongst all manner of cracked and re-glued ornaments brought home by an excited Bertie over the years. Laura looked back at Mandy through the thin pane of glass her picture was placed in, her eyes bright, her smile false looking as she tilted her face towards the camera with Mandys scrubby head tucked under her chin.

They'd used that photo in her memorial sheet at the funeral. Mandy had given it to the priest when the event was being organised because no one had any others. Laura didn’t have much in the way of family or friends really and no one had come down for the funeral. Laura would have despised it if she'd known; she’d always used to say that photo made her look dowdy. It hadn’t really though.

Mandy had always made sure the photo was present on nights like this ever since Laura had died just in the faint hope he might notice it and feel an ounce of guilt for his actions. She knew he hated it when Laura was mentioned usually and the thought of Laura watching him as he tore his way through Mandys messy home as if he had the right helped Mandy push through everything that would follow. It was like having her friend back with her. It made Mandy feel just a little more brave.

What would Laura have said if Mandy had ever told her about any of this Mandy wondered?

Of course, Mandy had never told the blonde anything about this arrangement, even though it had been tempting more than a few times. The secret though, Mandy truly hoped, would die with her. Mandy wouldn’t want anyone knowing her business, wouldn’t want people gossiping. Not that Laura would have blamed Mandy if she'd known of course. Of that Mandy was completely certain. She would have been furious definitely, she would have railed at it all in her own peculiar quiet fashion and then she'd have tried to make Mandy go to the police.

And that, only that, had been the reason Mandy hadn't told her friend. Mandy had tried that route once and never again, she still remembered trying to stammer it all out at the sergeants desk while Bertie screamed around her ankles. She remembered too the way the officers eyes slid past her to gaze at her son and then back again; the disbelief and the judgement flashing through the years as it so often did on these evenings and Mandy flushed with embarrassment and shame just as she had back then.

She couldn't do it all again to herself twice.

Besides; she had her boy to think of. If it all came out then they'd have to move somewhere new, Bertie would find it hard to adjust, Mandy might not be able to find a job with such flexible hours. He might lose his funding if they went to a new county. Someone might take Bertie away from her, put him in some home where they wouldn’t care about his favourite colour or the fact he hated cheerios. Someone else would control Mandy’s boys life and she wouldn’t allow it. Not while she breathed air would she let that happen. It was why she had made the deal in the first place.

No, Mandy was stuck where she was in this God awful situation. No escape. Her eyes found Lauras again across the room and then filled with unexpected tears. Laura smiled as unreachable and fixed as the glass she stood behind.

What Mandy wouldn’t give to hear her friend make her laugh again.

Mandy was so lonely these days; it wasn’t like work was safe to make friends in. Laura had been a happy accident and even if she hadn't ever told Laura everything it had still been good to have someone to talk to during break and Laura always seemed to know the right thing to say to make Mandy laugh. Mandy missed laughing until she cried. She missed the company and the warmth of another human being who asked for nothing but companionship. Laura had been lonely too Mandy always thought though she chose never to pry.

They’d both kept their secrets.

The clock hummed again. Half past.

Well, that was long enough.

Mandy heaved herself to her feet decisively and walked slowly to the kitchen, cup in hand. She may as well wash up. Didn't seem like he was coming now. She usually saved the chores until he left, in one part hoping the mess might annoy him enough that he didn't linger and for another it gave her mind something to think about once he'd gone. When she was busy forcing herself not to break down.

The kitchen was a jumble of colours and styles. Bertie had a magpies eye for anything shiny and Mandy had never developed the knack to deny him something that made him happy. The old fridge buzzed loudly until she kicked it on the way past. Bloody thing was so noisy sometimes you couldn’t hear yourself think.

The various papers stuck to the front of the fridge fluttered at the slight movement. Primary coloured pictures draped in loopy handwriting obviously drawn with a great deal of care. There was all manner of art there, some so old it crinkled at the corners and others as new as last week.

Mandy loved them all no matter the quality and Bertie would stand and watch as she tacked his work to the fridge looking proud every single time. He’d be home tomorrow morning probably bringing something else he’d created in his absence. It had been hard to set up the respite care one night a month and they’d both hated the seperation but it had been necessary.

Bertie was 18 now and although his mind might not be that age he was still a young man with his own views on things. Mandy hadn’t liked the idea of him getting out of bed and seeing anything once he could open the stair-gates. She didn’t want to confuse or scare her boy and it was only one night a month that she couldn’t protect either of them from.

He’d settled quite well into his routine now, even started mentioning the disco they put on every other month. He wanted a yellow shirt for it; Mandy had meant to pick one up at the charity shop last time she was there but she’d been busy. There’d been-

There was a pile of dirty dishes and cutlery waiting for her in the sink, Mandy dropped her cup to join them in the washing up bowl and ran the tap loudly to drown out the nagging whispers in her head that worried about what ifs on auto pilot.

The cup bobbed in the vacuum of water as a sharp knife circled the rim of a plate.

When the water wasn’t loud enough she hummed to herself, barely restraining herself from singing. The hope flared and fled in turn as she yo yo’d between fear and happiness.

That was her error. She made herself so loud that she couldn’t hear herself think or the sound of the front door opening when it did. She only knew she wasn’t alone when a hand wrapped around her waist from behind.

It made her jump, the second cup of the evening smashed on the bottom of the bowl and spread wet pottery through the suds. Her eyes caught on the glinting tip of the knife.

When it was over she’d have to use a sieve to get it all out.

Her hand gripped the cusp of the side tightly as her thoughts yearned for the feel of the knifes handle.

The hand at her waist squeezed meaningfully.

When it was all over-

Patsy Mount stood poised and lonely on the precipice of a rickety bridge slung up between two cliffs. It should here be explained that this was not at all a nice bridge but, then again, it wasn’t meant to be. Bridges slung across two cliff tops are rarely referred to in travel guides for their warm handshakes and spectacular geographic views of fallen Sherpas. Somewhere far below her feet dark water gurgled merrily over sharp rocks. Above her head was a forgot me not blue sky. It was a middle place. The centre of the seesaw that never touched the air or felt the ground.

Patsy stood where she’d always stood. Trapped somewhere between the light and dark. Alone.

In her arms she carried a huge book that was attached with great iron chains to her shoulders and waist. In the non existent breeze the iron clinked against her legs. The book weighed far too much for its size and she’d been carrying it for far too long. It belonged to her, it was what made her her to some people and she’d learned to live with it, she just didn’t have to be happy about that fact.

And boy oh boy was she unhappy about it some days. She wished she could have had some kind of vote on this story, she wished it didn’t have to be hers.

She wanted to drop it over the inviting edge to the water below, the temptation was more than a little inviting this height up but she knew she couldn’t. It would take a bigger sacrifice than she could give. It would take all of her to let it go entirely.

Ahead of her on the other side of the swaying bridge was the dark mouth of a cave and all she could do was blunder forward. Perhaps there would be another way to freedom? Someone might have the key if only she could keep going.

It was hard though.

It was always so ridiculously hard to keep moving and especially here where there was no one to help her carry such heavy things. Patsy was sick of carrying heavy things. It was hers and hers alone to bare and the weight was cutting her apart. The chains dug soul deep and she was so tired.

The bridge shook and quaked all around her as she staggered onwards and Patsy groaned as she forced herself across. The water seemed to be rising. The walls booming.

By the time she’d reached the tunnel she was sweating. Her hair stuck to her forehead and the heavy things were somehow heavier. Her chest was burning, her hand and the road still went ever on and on.

The cave gave her no rest, no quarter or inch because it was a cave and caves aren’t known for their hospitality either. As she stepped panting into the gloom the ground below her feet quaked with an eerie echoing thump. The noise went on and on all around her as Patsy limped deeper into the darkness and all the while the heavy things she carried grew heavier and Patience Mount grew weary

There was someone here somewhere. There had to be. Someone she had been waiting for. There had to be.

It didn’t seem to surprise her when she came across the door; it reminded her of another one. A spinning bead on a wire and a screaming baby. She wanted to open it, she wanted to tell someone she needed help.

The chains snared around her wrist and tried to force her hand to stay at her side. All those damn heavy things weighing her down... But she hadn’t come this far to be stopped by the weight her own story. She’d waited for this. The door swung open at the lightest scrape and Patsy collapsed inside. It was light in here and someone really was there. Finally.

Someone was running towards her. Someone was here. Here for her.

Patsy looked up into the face she’d been searching for in the dark. The face merely puckered as hands pulled at the chains.

“Let them go.” The face ordered.

Patsy couldn’t do as she was told. The heavy things didn’t work like that, you couldn’t let them go just because you were told to.

“I talked to a woman about this today.’ Patsy said, she smelled home on the air, ‘I wished it was you.”

“Pats?”

Patsy couldn’t move, she couldn’t speak, the hand was slipping from hers. The heavy things were crowding round her, smothering the light as darkness flooded through the door, following her always. Delia was disappearing and Patsy couldn’t move.

“What are the wages of sin?”

Another voice loomed from the dark and Patsy hated it. Hated that voice. The heavy things were white hot and slipping from her grip to crush her stomach. Patsy couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see anything but swirling black. Delia had been right there and she was gone and Patsy had to find her. The voice was screaming.

“What are the wages of sin?”

Something swung in the air out of the darkness towards Patsy. Something shiny and heavy and it hit Patsy squarely in the chest; slicing through her skin. Slicing through her lungs and her heart and tearing everything-

“No!”

Patsy sat up with a yell, her hand outstretched protectively, still caught reaching to defend what she couldn’t defend herself from.

Sweat. She was sweating and her heart- She was in the dark place, Abraham- She had to- The girls!

Patsy sucked in air as she tried to understand where she was, steel bands were clutching at her chest. She was back in the dark place, she was dying, she couldn’t-

HOME!

Home. She was home. Her home. She was safe. The girls were safe. Just a dream.

Patsy reached out blindly to touch the soft cotton of her duvet with her right hand just to prove it to herself. All around her the murky shapes lost their edges. In the gloom of the night Patsy squinted at her dresser, her wardrobe, the wooden beam of her bed frame. The subtleties of her home. Her home. Not the dark place. She felt the give of her mattress beneath her body as sense prevailed. Vital muscles uncoiled and she realised her pyjamas were soaked through with sweat. Slowly, she pulled back her hand, feeling the empty space where her middle finger should be.

Dream. It was a dream. Not real. She had to calm down, someone might hear. Her racing thoughts surged as they hammered her mind hurriedly into a solid mass once again. She’d been getting a fair bit of practice at this recently and she squeezed her eyes closed to help the unyielding footsteps of progress.

Stupid. It had been that stupid counselling session this afternoon, it had brought it all back. She’d still been thinking about it when she’d got into bed. It had taken far too much control not to crack in the ridiculously chirpy woman’s office. How are you sleeping? What kind of question was that to ask someone anyway? Wasn’t even like she’d asked for a meeting anyway. It was all Ursulas doing.

Urusula had been a thorn in her side ever since she’d asked for early return actually.

She’d demanded all manner of exams and Patsy had hardly been in a position to refuse the demand had she? She’d done the physio, she’d taken the tests, she’d gone to occy health and squeezed as many sponge balls as the nurse had been able to throw at her and still Detective Inspector Ursula seemed not to have given up on her mission to punish Patsy for acting the hero. Even so, Patsy had overcome them enough to be allowed a meeting later that day to discuss her return to CID. If all went well it was likely she’d be returning to active duty by next week providing she played her cards right. Still... Patsy harboured suspicions her senior might have another card up her sleeve. Ursula made hoops faster than Michael Jordon on speed.

Taking in a deep breath Patsy wiped her forehead with shaking fingers. Just a dream. Didn’t matter about the rest. Abraham was dead. He was dead. He was dead. He was dead.

Heart still thumping uncomfortably fast Patsy uneasily forced herself to lay back down in bed. Sleep. She needed to sleep. Well, she tried to lay back down at least. The task was made infinitely more difficult however because the woman beside her had thrown out an arm into Patsys designated side of the bed. Patsy squirmed as she tried to dislodge the pointy sharpness of a wrist from between her shoulder blades before giving up.

Through narrowed eyes Patsy turned her head, the cotton pillow slip sticking to her sweaty neck, as she glared at her oblivious companion. The blonde was snoring the heavy sonorofic snores of the extremely drunk. Over the wavy tresses of hair Patsy spied a half finished glass of amber liquid discarded on the other bedside table and rolled her eyes.

Again? Seriously.

The smell of old spirits and unbrushed teeth wafted across the divide and Patsy fidgeted in frustration.

Still clinging to the faintest possibility she might fall back to sleep Patsy stared at the ceiling.

Her skin itched, the sweat was turning cold and Trixie had stolen the covers. Patsy didn’t feel up to what was fast becoming a night time tug of war habit and tried to ignore it. All of it.

Her chest hurt. Her chest always hurt now. The thick band of skin slowly drifting into a scar rubbed when she thought about it. The dream might have been just that but the scar was proof it hadn’t been that always. It had been the reality. It certainly felt real still.

Patsy stared forcefully at the ceiling, willing her mind to empty. To not think about everything that was wrong with this scene. A pulse beat behind her right eye, the clock in the kitchen downstairs ticked its tock through the silent house. Her hand clenched around the edge of the mattress anchoring herself to the present even as her body lived in the past.

It was alright. It was a dream. It was just a dream. It wasn’t real.

Trixie chose this moment to rip an almighty, ear bending snore directly into Patsys ear and dragged her arm from underneath Patsys back, smacking her lips loudly. Patsys sweating raw flesh flinched at the contact. Patsy squeezed her hand tighter against the hard reality of the mattress, her knuckles clicking warningly at her to be more gentle but she ignored them. Her other hand she balled into a fist and held close to her.

Trixie continued to dream onwards as Patsy forced herself to stay where she was. She wouldn’t get up. It had been just a dream but even so- It would be nice if her friend would sleep on the sofa for once as they’d agreed when she moved in.

Trixie complained about the sofas uncomfortably high arms cricking her neck but Patsy suspected that her friend just didn’t like sleeping alone.

A shame really because Patsy really could do with the odd solo night in her own bed. Sometimes a gal appreciated having a full blown panic attack in some semblance of solitude. Honestly! She couldn’t even nip into the toilet these days without someone-Seppie, knocking on the door to ask a burning question that simply couldn’t wait.

Patsy mentally read this back in her mind, the internal editor of her thoughts tapping its pen sullenly on the desk and then hurriedly rebuked herself. She didn’t have a problem with the toilet situation. Seppie could ask her whatever she needed to and... Even she could admit that Trixie had a good excuse for her issues. Patsy loved her best friend very much and she wanted to help she honestly did but this living arrangement was starting to do her head in. Sometimes it felt like she’d just let another teenager move in with her. Trixies mood swings were hardly pleasant at the best of times. Mix a few whiskeys in with that and Patsy was considering taking up meditation.

Or maybe she could just buy a pair of ear muffs to sleep in?

Not that she’d had any other choice available to her when Trixie had arrived on her doorstep announcing that Tom had asked her to move out. Patsy loved her friend and wouldn’t see her on the streets. They’d drunk a bottle of wine to celebrate their first night together, Trixie had called Tom a few choice names. It had all sounded so simple.

Trixie said she was saving for her own place, she’d hardly be here anyway with all the extra shifts she’d be pulling. Patsy had been happy to help; still was deep down. A month on though and even if Patsy could understand why her friend might feel like drowning her sorrows of an evening when she got home it didn’t hide the fact that this evening was the third night Trixie had stumbled into bed drunk and it was only Wednesday.

Patsy checked her watch blearily.

Well, Thursday now.

God. Go back to sleep said the sensible voice from the back of her head. She could do with it; she’d felt like a zombie for weeks and tomorrow was a big day. She needed to rest. Maybe enough sleep would make life easier.

Trixies arm struck out blindly as the remaining duvet was dragged away from Patsys legs. Outside the window the wind rustled nearby hedges. The walls were caving in around her. The air was sticky and hot. The clock tocked too loud for her head to ignore. The scar ached as if it really had-

“What are the wages of sin?”

Patsy expelled a great breath of fatigue and gave up as her heart spiked painfully again. Enough.

At least she could get out of bed quietly; she’d always been good at that after all. Even with that particular quality though it was still a laborious task getting out of the room quickly. The movements more akin to a sort of slow paced rise and trot than actual footsteps. Trixie had a lot of stuff and in a bid not to confuse the girls too much most of it was being stored in Patsys bedroom.

Patsy managed to dodge a particularly large stack of boxes labelled dresses by completing a complicated half limbo manoeuvre and edged out into the hallway.

The light out here was muted but still present; an admission to the youngest and, even if she wouldn’t admit it, the second youngests needs. The girls hated the dark and Patsy had already learned how to shut out the light when she went to sleep. It seemed to be helping with the girls nightmares even if it hadn’t made a difference to Patsys.

Out of growing habit Patsy tiptoed down the hallway to listen at Seppies door. The sound of a tiny mouth breathing loudly met her ears and she nodded in simple satisfaction before repeating the movement at Ferns door. It was probably ridiculous to think it but she supposed she could get away with it in the safety of her own head; knowing they were asleep and safe did really help. It was hard not to get lost at times in her own memories and at least when the girls were present she had a reason to keep holding on. They anchored her better than an hour with a too cheerful shrink.

Shaking her head at how far she’d come Patsy made her way downstairs. The sight was hardly a nice one waiting for her when she reached the bottom but it wasn’t unexpected. Trixie had been down here for a while apparently. There was a half drunk bottle of whiskey on the table and a pizza box left open. Patsy clucked her tongue irritably as she strode over to the table and picked up the bottle.

Her friend needed to slow down before she fell too far in on herself. Patsy was getting tired of cleaning up after her and quite frankly if she didn’t stop soon Patsy was going to have to say something.

It wasn’t only Trixie the drinking affected after all. The girls had their own monsters to fight; God knew Mick hadn’t been any kind of angel and neither had Allie. They didn’t need this shit in their lives anymore and Patsy was determined to keep as many of their monsters from the door as she could. For them she would break all the rules. All in all Trixie was starting to tread on very thin ice. Patsy was prepared to give her another fortnight at most to start getting her shit together before she’d have to be on the blondes case like a fat kid after cake.

God, she needed a fag.

Slinging the sloshing bottle in the child locked cleaning cupboard she picked up her crumpled cigarette packet from the inside of the pantry door and flounced through the kitchen, into the living room making a bee line for the back door. She hadn’t been smoking in the house much recently. She’d had to start hiding the fags too ever since Seppie had freaked out after a bad nights sleep.

The kid was paranoid about fires and it wasn’t like she didn’t have cause.

Patsy had so far managed to wean Seppie out of turning off everything that could possibly constitute a fire hazard just out a need for practicality but some battles were harder won. Cigarettes burned. Burning things caused fire. Seppie had been trapped in a burning building. Some things Patsy couldn’t change so, for now, the cigarettes remained hidden where little eyes couldn’t see and Patsy was spending a lot of her evenings craving nicotine.

Sighing at the state of her personal world Patsy pushed open the back door and flopped down heavily on the back step. Then, with a guilty peek around her in the fleeting possibility that a four year old ninja might be hiding somewhere, she tipped over the flower pot beside the door and pulled out the lighter that had been sellotaped to the inside.

It was raining outside, the September autumn driving the memory of summer time into the past with viscous ease.

Patsy lit her cigarette with delicacy looking out into the flat planes of her garden as the sky dropped its fine rain down around her. Her hands were still shaking she noted with disgust. Her hands shook, Patsy thought harshly, but at least the rest of her wasn’t anymore. The smoking helped, it gave her something to do with herself, a form of self medication they wouldn’t advise in any mental health manual she’d heard of.

The sweet Cassie Young would probably try and call it a bad coping strategy if she’d been about and she’d be correct in the unhelpful way shrinks tended to be. Helen would tell her she was being unnecessarily dramatic. Delia would say-

Patsy cut that thought off straight away and closed her eyes. She smelled the sharp tang of rain in the air while the heavier tinge of smoke drifted around her eyes and stung them. The sweat had cooled on her skin under the warmth of the damp outside and her pyjamas clung to her as she sat still and calm as a statue in the early morning light. No one would be able to know what was going on in Patsys head right now if they looked at her and that was how she wanted it. To anyone on the outside she looked to be in control.

She was always in control.

Patience Mount was a master of control when it came to some things. Less so in others. Feelings were one sphere she had always thought she had control over. She had long ago learned, before she even knew that she was learning how to do it in fact, that some feelings could eat you inside if you let them. The bad feelings, the bad memories. They were not something one could carry around on their sleeves.

When Patsy was very young, still living in the commune with her mother and her sister, she’d learned the hard way what happened to people who couldn’t hide their feelings. So she’d taught herself to put all of the bad memories away into a box inside her head. A big box. A box she didn’t need to open or acknowledge and with each addition to that box she’d always made sure to close the lid tightly shut afterwards. All of them had gone in there. Deeper and deeper she’d buried the memories until even she didn’t fully know how far they went anymore. The box was where they lived and she didn’t want it open. She didn’t know what she’d be if that box spilled out too much.

Probably something that would require popcorn from onlookers.

The box had been based on a real one; she could still see it like it was real if she closed her eyes. Bigger than a book and sharply rectangular, built from delicate rose wood with a gold inlay in the glossy top, so shiny it showed your face and golden hinges that squeaked when it was opened.

Abraham had owned the box of course, just like he’d owned everything and everyone in that commune. He’d kept his bible in that box, he used to wrap the bible in red silk before he put it inside. Patsy knew that because he’d shown Patsy how to do it on one of the nights he’d called her to his room. He’d stroked her hair that night and told her she would grow tall as an angel and she’d watched him as he loomed closer than she wanted him to be, too scared to speak and after she’d been allowed back into the dorm she’d remembered the box most of all.

Patsy squeezed her eyes tighter closed, rocking on the step and willed herself to forget. Forget everything because it wouldn’t change no matter what she did.

When the commune ended in fire she’d forced those memories away into her mental box too and only sometimes did its rattlings unnerve her. That had been before though. Before a few months ago when hell had decided to take a holiday in Poplar. Patsy had seen one lover to the grave and another drift into the wind, she’d gained two daughters and she’d been hurt. She’d lost and won. In the present moment her missing finger throbbed as she thought about what had happened. Her lungs ached.

She had been hurt and seen hurt dealt out to people she loved and now she needed to put those memories in the box like all the others. It should work like that except it wasn’t anymore. The problem was that the box was so full of the things, the memories and the pain. The feelings she didn’t want to acknowledge weighed her down and it was like she could actually feel the hinges groaning in protest inside her. The box rattled, unable to take much more, the contents of everything that had come before hounded her sleeping moments and she didn’t have another way to cope. She didn’t have another box to put them in.

Before she’d met Delia Busby Patsy had always used sex as a kind of release valve when the box rattled. The anonymous absolutions her weak way of evening the balancing act she played with herself every day. But sex wasn’t an option anymore.

Patsy had made promises, serious promises. The kind of promises Patsy wouldn’t have made to anyone before Delia Busby had come along. Patsy had promised herself and she kept her promises. Delia had agreed and now here she was.

8 weeks later.

It was hardly an age to wait for someone, they’d even managed a few stilted texts between them in the interim and it wasn’t like Patsy hadn’t been busy but still... It was long enough. The boxes rattle was so loud now she couldn’t shut it up, she needed someone to help her. Someone to stand beside her as an equal. She needed Delia. She needed this one specific woman because Delia had seen her demons laid out bare and Delia hadn’t flinched. She’d been almost strong enough to stick it out, still soft enough to be reserved. She’d gone home to Wales to clear her head and Patsy couldn’t blame her. She knew Delia had enough steel in her soul to hold Patsy where she stood and boy oh boy had Patsy fallen for the brunette good and proper.

She’d fallen hard enough not to go looking for something easy in the break at least and that was quite the feat considering Patsys natural instincts in these things. She’d waited just as she promised and tomorrow- Today, Delia would be at the school. Today was a big day for lots of reasons really.

Delia. Work. Seppie.

A lot of big things crowding around one another.

Maybe that was the reason Patsy had woken up this morning too. Nerves?

Patsy wracked her brain to try and twist out the reasons from the corkscrew of her soul.

It was getting harder and harder not to feel things she didn’t want to. Harder to bite down the sheer rage at what had happened to her. The unjust abuse of everything she’d been through. Not one piece of it was fair and Patsy couldn’t change any of it. Abraham was dead. There was only ghosts to hate now and the dead were beyond her jurisdiction. She had to find a way to move past the anger. She had to be okay. Too many people relied on her to be okay. To be in control.

Delia was the one person she could allow the veil to drop just a fraction. She hadn’t had to pretend to be easier or simpler. Delia had held her and for the first time Patsy had allowed someone to do it without reservations. Delia had seen her and Patsy had been enough. Finally Patsy had been enough for someone. Not Constable Mount or the pretty face in the bar. She, Patience Mount, scars and all had been enough for Delia Busby.

Sucking in a lungful of smoke Patsy pushed away the swamping textures of her memories and opened her eyes. Then she squared her shoulders to the world at large.

The dawn wasn’t far off now although the girls wouldn’t be up for a few more hours yet to see it. Trixie was rota’d off work until Friday now and Patsy would leave her to wake up in her own time. The whiskey was better than sleeping pills to the blonde and her mood when she did wake up wasn’t going to be anything to be admired.

Besides, today was not a day to fall apart in. Today was a good day, Patsy fully intended to make it one of the best days she could.

This was because, first and foremost, it was Seppies birthday today. Patsy smiled as a tendril of nerves coiled inside her stomach. Five years old was a big age according to Seppie although the concept of marking the date with a celebration was a new idea to both of the girls. Patsy had been required to patiently explain to Seppie several times over a number of days that people usually looked forward to this kind of thing but the girl had continued to view it with a sort of withering mistrust.

Patsy understood why and wasn’t really sure if making a big deal was the right path to choose in these circumstances but she still hadn’t been able to stop herself from buying a cake and packet of balloons at the shop. At least she knew the present she had in mind would be appreciated.

Appreciated might be an understatement actually. Patsy had been thinking long and hard about today. She’d come to only one conclusion in way of a gift Seppie wanted with all her heart.

Patsy felt her mouth tug up into an absentminded smile at the thought. It stayed stubbornly on her face as the cigarette burned to ash and remained there as she replaced the lighter back in the pot with care.

It was still there when she went back into the house too and to the untrained eye some could suggest there was even the faintest trace of a bounce to her step.

A big day.

She had things to do. Things to keep her busy.

Thank heavens for that!